Nobel keeps its kudos but award from Yuri Milner and friends is fairer

The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences gave away $33m to eleven winners, all in one fell swoop

The annual science prizes set up by Yuri Milner over the past year are worth $3m apiece. That is more than twice the cash that accompanies a Nobel prize, the awards with which they are inevitably compared. But no one goes into science for the money. Kudos and tenure? Yes.

And this is where the prizes differ. The Nobel prize has a cachet that will not be surpassed in a hurry. For all its faults, and sometimes, because of them, the prizes are seen as the pinnacle of a scientific career. Unlike the Milner prizes, there is a limit on the number of people who can share a Nobel prize. That is grossly outdated in modern science, where breakthroughs rarely come at the hands of so few. But the very same restriction makes the Nobels more exclusive, with all the implications that brings.

The latest prize from Milner, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, is a collaboration with his "old friends" Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and Sergey Brin of Google. In one fell swoop, the three gave away $33m to eleven winners, none household names, but all major forces in modern biology. Milner set the tone for the windfalls last summer, when he gave $27m to nine scientists for fundamental work in physics.

Next to the prizes from Milner and his friends, the Nobels look antiquated. The nomination and selection process is secretive and obscure, and worthy winners go uncredited because of the arbitrary maximum three-person limit on winners. And the awards ceremony is often bizarre.

Only last year, laureates were treated to a circus act that asked, through the medium of acrobatics, "Is it possible to knit peace?" The prizes backed by Milner have no ceremony. Instead, winners are required to give public lectures on their work, to share their insights far and wide. Most are recorded and posted on the web.

Milner maintains the prizes are not intended to compete with the Nobels. He quit a PhD in physics, and went on to make a billion dollars through shrewd investments in social media and other internet enterprises. The prizes are in some way a show of appreciation. But he wants them to reward the great minds that stayed in science, and reward them very publicly. The huge cash sums ensure the prizes make a splash, and raise awareness of the most compelling achievements in modern science.


Ian Sample, science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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